The University of Louisville women’s basketball team opens NCAA tournament play Friday at noon in a first-round game on its home court in the KFC Yum! Center (ESPN-2). The No. 1-seeded Cardinals take on 16 seed Robert Morris (22-10), with Michigan (an 8 seed, 21-11) playing Kansas State (9, 21-11) in the second game. Winners advance to the second round here Sunday.
Louisville, which is 29-3 and ranked No. 5 in the final Associated Press poll, is a strong favorite to win two games here this weekend to advance to the finals of its region in Albany, N.Y., Mar. 29-31.
But Louisville coach Jeff Walz says his team has a slim margin of error.
It’s a theme Walz often alludes to, and one he says was easily demonstrated when Louisville lost two starters to injury for the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championship against Notre Dame two weekends ago — and got powdered 99-79.
“Like I’ve said, our margin for error is thin, it’s always been thin,” says Walz. “Everybody laughs at me when I say that but it’s the truth.”
Walz’ notion is the Cardinals click when all they’re all clicking at what they do best.
“We have pieces to a puzzle on this team,” the coach explains. “We’re not always going to have the best five players on the floor, but we think we have possibly the best team when you put all the pieces together.”
Louisville is averaging 79 points per game, topping 100 points three times. It’s a combined 65-6 in the past two seasons. All six losses have been to Top-25 teams, and four have been to teams in the Top-5. In other words, Louisville is generally too busy pouring on the coal to get upset.
Senior guard Asia Durr carries a 21 points-per-game average. The 5-10 left-handed shooter is on the watch list for every player-of-the-year honor and will be named first-team All-American.
Durr flourishes with a steady drumbeat from teammates. Six average 7-11 points a game, and fresh reserves step on and off the hardwood helping Louisville maintain tempo. Louisville has some height, but is vulnerable to tall teams. It counters that by putting more mustard on passes and getting up and down the court … Whoop! There they went!
Walz is 328-99 in his 12th season at Louisville, with three Final Fours and eight Sweet 16 appearances – and definitely a master at putting puzzle pieces together. He identifies the skills at which each player excels and asks them to be good at that.
“If what you do is set screens, set screens. If what you do is defend, defend,” says Walz. “The saying we have is whatever you do well, do it. Whatever you don’t do well, don’t let anybody see it.”
Lost and found
The starters Louisville lost for the Notre Dame game appear to be on the mend. Center Sam Fuehring will definitely play, while guard Arica Carter could be available.
At a practice Thursday, Fuehring showed no problems with her ankle.
“I feel great,” Fuehring reports. “Today is my third day of practicing — full practicing … I feel like I’m 95 percent, and tomorrow it’ll be even better.”
Carter, who was banged hard on the side of the knee, says she is “hopeful to play,” though the 5-10 guard did not participate in full drills with the team on Thursday. Carter was in uniform and worked extensively with a trainer.
For one exercise she looped what appeared to be a big rubber band around her waist, with performance coach Kaitylnn Jones holding tension on the loop like reins. Carter strode out across court and back as she pulled against the tension. First forward, then laterally. Carter next worked without the band, lifting her knees high as she marched.
“Arica ran yesterday,” says Walz. “She goes to the doctor again today and we’ll see what they say about cutting and planting.”
Taking a break from the coach
One definite game absence for Friday will be Walz, himself. The Louisville coach will be serving a one-game suspension “earned” a year ago at the end of Louisville’s semi-final game loss to Mississippi State.
Walz didn’t simply roast the referees, but directed his disapproval at the NCAA’s head of officiating at the scorer’s table – that the coach appeared to blame for assigning a referee who, um, might not possess a skill level commensurate with the importance of the game.
“I voiced my displeasure and said some things I probably shouldn’t have said and may have used some colorful language,” Walz says. “They fined me for it and gave me my one-game suspension, and that’s their choice, and that’s fine.”
Still, it is highly unusual for a coach to be suspended for a tournament game. But Walz seems unconcerned. He plans to turn things over to associate head coach Stephanie Norman, who is in her 12th year with Walz at Louisville.
“You know, we’ve had a year to prepare for this,” says Walz. “We went through a dry run during the non-conference season where Steph took care of everything, pre-game talk, all the substitutions, play calling, halftime talk.”
Walz says he sat down the bench, and didn’t communicate with the players on the floor.
Carter says the experiment worked perfectly.
“I was just so glad he wasn’t coaching us,” she says, with a smile. “Get a break from him.”
What they can do to hurt you
Robert Morris (22-10) started the season slowly but won 21 of its last 24 games to take the Northeast Conference title.
Walz says Robert Morris, “knows who its best players are,” and is patient enough to find them. “As soon as you fall asleep, it’s a lay-up,” says Walz.
Robert Morris coach Charlie Buscaglia says he sees top teams like Louisville in the course of scouting the Colonials opponents.
“Like for instance this year we went and played Iowa, who won the Big 10, and they have one of the best players in the country at the center position,” says Buscaglia. “We had to scout and prepare for that game. We were able to see the different things that a team at that level can do to hurt you. Every top team has a different identity, but you could see the level of size, maybe athleticism, speed.”
The Colonials coach says his team has to stick to what they do best.
“We’re not a team that’s a Jack of all trades, master of none,” Buscaglia continues. “We like to try to master what we do .. and continue to be true to who we are, even if the opponent looks as strong as a Louisville.”
Tickets for all sessions are available at KFC Yum! Center box office, and at www.Gocards.com/NCAAWBB, beginning at $21 lower level.